Beware of False Teachers?

Image result for false teachersBy Joe LaGuardia

Beware of false teachers, who come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Matt.  7:15).

Lets reflect on false teachers for a moment.   We don’t talk often enough about them, and I have a feeling that we hesitate to call anyone a false teacher because we don’t want to be jerks.  But Jesus commands us to do so in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:15).

The question is, how do we differentiate between true and false teachers when, in the very same chapter, Jesus instructs us to “judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matt 7:1)?  Google an image  of “false teachers,” and you will get montages of famous pastors and preachers that have the loudest voices among us.  That’s not very nice.

The first step in any biblical exegesis worth its salt is to put yourself in the shoes of those who heard this command in the first place.  Jesus was talking to his disciples upon a mountain around the Sea of Galilee.  He was far from the Temple, and he had yet to interact with the official priests of Jerusalem.

In warning his followers of false teachers, however, Jesus was setting himself apart.  He came not to abolish to law, but to fulfil it.  He began his teachings with repentance  and the Kingdom of God, (which implied revolution and revolt from the first-century worldview), but then reversed expectations by blessing the poor, the meek, and the weak.

His signature teachings did not perpetuate violence against oppressors, but included the unavoidable fate of persecution and the forgiving of enemies.  What kind of teaching was this?

Later in the Sermon, around Matthew 7, Jesus accentuates the authority of his teaching.  Only God can judge, but you are to discern true and false prophets by their fruit.  Those who hear Jesus’ words and fail to obey him are like people who build homes on sinking sand.  Ask, seek, and knock and God will take care of you.

This Teacher has authority, and the fruit of his teaching are attested by the works he accomplishes (see Matt. 4:23-25).  When crowds amass, however, beware of distractions, false teachers, and the self-righteous.

Nowadays, we want to apply the label “false teachers” to anyone who touts a  theology we either deem heretical or exploitive.  We poke fun at television evangelists, and the downfall of not a few major celebrity preachers have only reinforced our habit to judge those who are famous.  I’ve been called a false teacher several times by people who are so far to the right even Jesus stands to the left of them.

We can’t call just anyone we don’t like false teachers, and we can’t be jerks or judgmental!

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So there must be a second step in figuring out what Jesus means in his warning, and that is to see what people he confronted the most: namely, the Pharisees, scribes and experts on the law.  He called them white-washed tombs.  He warned his disciples to “be not like the hypocrites” who stand in the marketplace with elaborate prayers.   He didn’t want his followers to make their righteousness rather than God’s grace the center of their testimony.

But if this is true, then this brings us to a definition of “false teachers” by a very uncomfortable standard: Jesus warned his disciples against those who were the most religious among them.

Pharisees were normal folks like you and me; their concern was obeying God because they believed that Roman occupation was a result of Israel’s sin.  What is wrong with a group of people policing others for the sake of holiness and obedience?  Seems legit to me!

But that is the very problem.  Jesus says that false teachers are “ravenous” (RSV), and their appetite for others are in their concern not for the log in their own eye, but for the speck in others.  People who fail to accentuate God’s love and grace, mercy, kindness, and redemption are too focused on the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the law.  They push for an agenda of personal, feel-good spirituality at the expense of an active faith that works and persists in doing justice.

Their teaching is divisive, and results in distrust, discord, and (often) unnecessary disharmony as a result of this kind of religious zeal.  How many churches split because one group of people believe they are running the church more effectively (which translates into “more holy”) than another group in the church?

The fruit of false teachers are false because the fruit turns sour.  It sucks the life and air out of rooms that can otherwise be safe sanctuaries in which people are filled with the Holy Spirit.  False teachers don’t start off as such; rather they become false because their season of fruit turns bitter.

That means that you, if you are a leader, can become a false teacher if you are not heeding Jesus’ warning.  No one is exempt from this temptation!

As a religious leader I am cognizant of the power that we pastors wield in the lives of others.  I often ask: Do I offer a life giving word of God, bearing fruit that feeds others and leads them into the relentless grace of God; or do I embody bad news that focuses too much (without a sense of perspective) on the downfall and failure of others?  Its a good question to ask and consider.

 

Tour of Sacred Spaces: Seminaries, Monasteries, and Writer’s Offices, oh my!

I took my annual “pilgrimage” to Atlanta this past week and spent time contemplating sacred spaces. Although the first stop on my tour led to my old seminary whereby I attended a preaching conference, my time began at an interfaith prayer labyrinth we commissioned several years ago.

I remember the commissioning like it was just last week: the CBF Baptist-Muslim task force and the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University partnered in building and dedicating the garden. I read a prayer of dedication that day.

When I arrived on Mercer’s campus this past week, I walked the labyrinth and sat on one of the benches for 30 minutes. That was 30 minutes . . . without reaching for my phone. Without getting bored. Without becoming restless or distracted. Thirty minutes of just sitting, contemplating the importance of this place–a center of a labyrinth, which required me to walk in and from among the margins to the center, which takes about 10 minutes.

I mean, you can easily walk through the labyrinth, bypassing the zig-zagging stone “walls”, which means walking about 14 feet from the border to the center in about 30 seconds, but that would be cheating.

See the source image

But a pilgrim walks in prayer and contemplation, which includes 4 circuits towards the center, away from the center, around, and back again.

My walk burdened me with the importance of pilgrimage and sacred spaces: We come to the center to really come home to God. This, my seminary, and this place–Atlanta–is my home of homes, I’m convinced. After all, I got two post-grad degrees here, raised my children here, pastored my first church here, and made life-long friends.

But I can’t stay at the center. No one can. Its only half the pilgrimage, and God sends us out into the world.

I come to Atlanta twice a year for this reason: There’s always a preaching conference, a day pilgrimage to a monastery in Conyers, and time with our good friends. Then I go back to ministry, family, and my beloved church in Florida. It is a circuit following the Holy Spirit to the interior places of my life, in-and-out, and back beyond the border to the exterior places where I do business, where I am learning to transition my children to adulthood so they can leave home and go into the world on their own.

It is ironic, by the way, that this year’s preaching conference welcomed theologian Miroslav Volf who lectured on home and the significance of God making God’s home among God’s people.

God builds homes and welcomes us; we come home and then are tasked with welcoming others; and then we go forth and build other homes in order to welcome the world.

I decided to do a few videos on the pilgrimage this time around, which you can find here. Entering and exiting these two locations– the seminar and the monastery (and out again) –have become as natural and invigorating as breathing, like a breath of fresh air, or coming up for air.

But now my week is coming to a close, and I am ready to dive deep into the world for another season of ministry to which God calls, from deep to deep, so I can show others how to be pilgrims too.

Review of “Our Muslim Neighbors”

By Joe LaGuardia

I recently had an engagement with Muslim interfaith advocate, Victor Begg, at a restaurant attached to a local, municipal airport. When it came time for evening prayer, Victor and his family sought a quiet place to pray. I recommended that they walk next door to the small one-room terminal at the airport, where there is plenty of room for prayer rugs. At the time, no one would be in the terminal save one clerk at a reservation desk.

Victor and his family reminded me of the optics. If he and his family gathered in the terminal no matter how vacant, with prayer rugs and shawls, what kind of message would that send to airport staff? I apologized, and soon they found a corner of the lobby large enough to accommodate their needs.

Victor Begg, community activist and author of Our Muslim Neighbors, has been an American citizen for over 50 years. He is from India–far from the Middle East–so his “look” doesn’t raise any red flags; and yet, he is mindful of how suspicious his neighbors are of having a Muslim do business and recreation in the area.

This brief experience at the local airport is precisely why Begg authored Our Muslim Neighbors in the first place: to help readers in the United States and beyond realize that Muslims make up some 1.8 billion people on earth, and that a large majority of them–over 97%–are upright citizens that defy combative, radicalized stereotypes and caricatures portrayed on the news.

Image result for our muslim neighbor victor begg

Our Muslim Neighbors is a memoir of Begg’s sojourn from India to Detroit, Michigan. It follows his travails and triumphs in learning a new language, attending college, and getting his businesses established. It outlines the joys of meeting his beloved wife and raising a family.

His rise to community organization is accessible and easy to read. The narrative flows in a conversational tone that lets us get into the front door of the Begg household, and might be a good primer for anyone interested in becoming a public activist.

Begg has plenty of experience to share with readers. He is a published columnist, community organizer, successful entrepreneur, and (…and I have personal experience with this!) a good friend. We meet him as he defies family in order to seek life in the States, struggles to secure a loan to start a furniture franchise, and brokers relationships on behalf of religious freedom from the Mid-West to South Florida. If there is anything weak about this book, its too detailed and drowns us under the weight of so many accomplishments.

The beauty of the story is not in the religious sense of his writing, but in the folksy way he makes his story anyone’s story. He is not preachy or pushy. It is, simply, one American immigrant’s tale of earning and living the American Dream.

We need a resuscitation of that dream today, a dream lost in the midst of our political and religious milieu of late. I have personally been involved in Baptist and Muslim interfaith work for nearly 15 years now, and it seems that Begg’s goals of seeking understanding and educating others on the American experience is close to mine and so many others. It is a part of a dream as American as apple pie and Corvettes.

The only way to go beyond toxic divisiveness is to dream again, and to take hold of the promises our privileged nation continues to offer those who work hard and love others as themselves.

Mark Hicks, writing for the Detroit News, states, “The book . . . extends his legacy and serves an influential guide in a volatile political climate.”

I may not have the same troubles Begg has, since I am squarely at home in a majority-Christian culture, but I relate to his immigrant-related issues. I am an Italian American in the Christ-haunted South, and I remind people, as has Begg, that it is not one particular religion that breeds violence or despair, but a growing radicalism in all corners of the world in which we separate “us from them”. In Myanmar, Buddhist radicals slaughter Muslims; in the Middle East, Muslims persecute and execute Christians; in Europe, Christians bomb synagogues. In China, communist officials in Xinjiang province are oppressing, torturing, and incarcerating in forced labor camps nearly 1 million Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people.* In our own nation, secularists limit freedom of speech on college campuses in the name of (ironically) “tolerance.”

Right now, we need Begg’s voice–and we need it badly. But we also need mine, and yours, and ours.

The greatest way to understand someone is to stand in his shoes. Our Muslim Neighbors helps us achieve that goal. Its dual role of being an immigrant memoir and exposition of American Islamic activist plays effectively to those of us who, above all else, believe that the American Dream can still work in an environment of justice, inclusivity, and diversity. Its not enough to say, “I tolerate you.” Who wants to be tolerated? That kind of marriage can’t last. Instead, we must say, “I understand you, and I have walked with you–and now I see differently because of it!”

*The House of Representatives has passed legislation identifying Chinese officials at the heart of Uighur oppression and freezing financial assets and visas is currently awaiting a vote in the U. S. Senate.